After a particularly unfortunate week, what a pleasure it was to wallow in the misery of others. Especially when that misery was as lustrous as that portrayed by the Sydney Theatre Company in their startling production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Nobody does unhappiness quite like the Russians and this vodka-soaked melancholy is given a lively, physical twist in the Australian company’s vision of Mr. Chekhov’s tragicomedy about longing and bitter regret that features a snappy adaptation by Andrew Upton and fresh directorial turns by Hungarian Tamas Ascher.
Set in a crumbling Russian estate, Uncle Vanya portrays the title character (Richard Roxburgh) and his niece Sonya (Hayley McElhinney) breaking their backs in unrewarding toil, their drudgery disturbed by a summer-long visit by family member Professor Serebryakov (John Bell), and his glamorous, younger wife Yelena (Cate Blanchett) that sends everyone into an enervating torpor.
The production features a slam-bang performance by film actress Cate Blanchett, who throws herself into the role of the luminously tarnished trophy wife of the gouty and pretentious older professor with the verve of a screwball comedienne under the spell of Stanislavsky. Miss Blanchett, wearing fit-like-a-glove frocks from the 1950s that recall the finest Hitchcock blondes, brings playfulness and lithe physicality to the part, resulting in pratfalls and near-misses that reveal just how inept Yelena and the other characters are at intimate contact.
They fall out of windows, tumble from chairs, get clumsily drunk on vodka and slap each other silly— but for all the acrobatics, everyone in Uncle Vanya seems fated to be alone and suffering. That goes for Yelena, trapped in a marriage with the high-maintenance professor, who, as masterfully portrayed by Mr. Bell, is as much of a sham as he is a blow-bag. There are so many rich scenes in this production that show pathetic—and often hilarious—attempts at connection, but two that come to mind are when Yelena gears herself up to satisfy her husband’s demand for a little affection like a woman traipsing to the guillotine and when Serebryakov responds to his daughter Sonya’s embrace by foppishly re-adjusting his white scarf.
This entrenched isolation extends to the country doctor Astrov (Hugo Weaving), desired by both Sonya and Yelena and who can blame them since Mr. Weaving gives the character such a potent combination of romanticism and elegant cynicism the good doctor is simply sex on a blini. No wonder Miss Blanchette’s Yelena tackles Mr. Weaving’s Astrov like a linebacker pouncing on a fumble during their destined –but poignantly graceless—kiss.
Sonya, an industrious plain Jane who believes work is the only way to temporarily deaden the pain of life, tries to act on her girlish crush on Astrov with results so luckless that by the end of the play she has reverted to slumping in her nursery chair with her head in the lap of her nanny Marina (an incandescent Jacki Weaver). Miss McElhinney does have a moment of flight, however, in her fetchingly self-conscious middle of the night eating scene with an oblivious Astrov and, most memorably, when Sonya and Yelena sneak in a few shots of vodka and get wonderfully tipsy, giggling and pillow-fighting until they collapse to the floor, too happy to move.
Perhaps the most frantic loner is Uncle Vanya, blazingly rendered by Mr. Roxburgh. Wasted years, unrequited love and unrelenting labor have not simply worn Vanya down—it was wound him up. He is a dervish of agitation and depression, a man literally coming apart at the seams.
The perfection of this Uncle Vanya is marred by one reservation. Mr. Ascher places the play in a late-1950s Cold War setting, in a structure that looks like a dilapidated warehouse or barn. Literally, the Iron Curtain falls and cheesy Soviet patriotic music plays during set changes, how’s that for subtlety?
Other than providing Miss Blanchett with period-perfect costumes –everyone else schlubs about in droopy duds that have clearly seen better days—you wonder about the accuracy of upper-class families clinging to estates when they probably would have been government-run collectives by then, as well as the fact that Vanya and his clan still had servants. This, admittedly, is a minor concern about a major interpretation of Mr. Chekov’s work that allows you to see Uncle Vanya through from an invigorating perspective.
by Anton Chekhov
directed by Tamas Ascher
Produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, presented at The Kennedy Center (Eisenhower Theater)
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
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